Muhammad Ali, The Greatest

Muhammad Ali, The Greatest

Compiled over a decade, bookended by Ali's improbable victory over Sonny Liston in 1964 and his rope-a-dope masterpiece against George Foreman in 1974, William Klein's loose-limbed 1974 documentary Muhammad Ali, The Greatest plays like an extended B-roll, cobbled together with precious little connective tissue. Unlike the riveting When We Were Kings, which formed a tight chronology of the "Rumble In The Jungle" from original footage and new interviews, the film doesn't impose a dramatic arc on the material, instead allowing its galvanizing impressions of the man to spill out in an unmediated flurry. Working as a photographer in Paris when he made The Greatest, Klein advanced a radical style that was influenced by his French New Wave cohorts–the bold chapter stops, in particular, are reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard's Masculin/Feminin–and he places a similar faith in the audience to piece his work together. The film's shapelessness gets a bit wearying after a while, mainly because so much of Ali's story has long since been processed into legend, but Klein wants only to capture the essence of his subject, leaving others to tease out the meaning behind his images. Over a 10-year stretch, Ali evolves from a swift-heeled comer to a cagey veteran in the ring, but his maverick persona remains intact, no matter how violently the social and political winds swirl around him. Arranged in four chapters, The Greatest begins in 1964 in Miami, where Klein spends more time soaking in the local color than covering the Ali-Liston bout, which he cuts artfully in still frames like a photojournal, with each new shot coming after a camera flash. Fighting under the name Cassius Clay, "The Louisville Lip" runs his mouth like a world champ well before he's ever crowned, but what appears at first to be startling vanity seems in retrospect more like defiance, a refusal to play by anyone's rules but his own. In one of the film's most powerful touches, Klein introduces each member of "The Syndicate," a shadowy cadre of white good-old-boys from Louisville (some managers and other prominent businessmen from alcohol and tobacco companies) who credit themselves with giving young Ali his start. Before he even contends with Liston, Ali has to wrest himself from these men, who, in their disturbing mix of paternalism and opportunism, slight him for being "a little ungrateful." The film's early sections, which find the principled man behind the poetic egotist, are the most compelling for their rarity alone; once Klein reaches Zaire in 1974, cameras document Ali's every step and utterance. Knowing that television covers the angles better than he ever could, Klein covers the local fervor surrounding the "Rumble In The Jungle" more thoroughly than the fight itself, but both When We Were Kings and Michael Mann's biopic Ali covered the same ground with more inspiration and force. In its list of priorities, Muhammad Ali, The Greatest puts boxing highlights at a distant third behind Ali the man and Ali the cultural icon. For that, it endures as a fascinating piece of raw portraiture.

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